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COLUMN: Suburbia to be a battleground

Naheed Nenshi’s landslide victory in NDP leadership race sets up showdown in urban centres, including suburbs of Calgary and Edmonton.
Naheed Nenshi at the 2024 leadership race debate in Calgary on May 11.

A significant uptick in party membership coupled with Naheed Nenshi’s landslide victory in last month’s NDP leadership race have New Democrats giddy about their prospects come the next provincial election.  

There's no doubt the former Calgary mayor’s popularity and more centrist stance will prove advantageous, particularly at a time when Danielle Smith is pulling the United Conservatives further to the right, but there are steep hills to climb, and long-held allegiances to overcome, if Nenshi is to be successful come 2027.  

Thirty-four of the NDP’s 38 MLAs represent ridings in either Edmonton or Calgary, with the four outliers being from the Edmonton suburbs of St. Albert and Sherwood Park as well as Lethbridge and Banff. In order to wrest power from the United Conservatives in the next election, the party needs to hold what it’s got and pick up at least another six seats.  

Given rural ridings are likely to be the toughest nut to crack, it stands to reason the NDP will focus its acquisition efforts on the remaining seats in Calgary along with suburbs of the two largest cities and other urban centres.  

One of the ridings that fits that bill is Highwood, although given this area’s electoral history, it seems almost preposterous to suggest it would be fertile ground for the New Democrats.  

Not only has Highwood been as blue as the summer sky, it’s also been a graveyard for NDP candidates over the years. After the riding was created in 1971, it took five elections and 15 years for the NDP to even crack 10 per cent of the popular vote. There was another two-decade span in 1990s and 2000s during which the NDP didn’t hit double digits in six straight elections.  

Voters have been kinder to the party more recently as the popular vote has reached 19, 17 and 29 per cent, respectively, in the last three elections, but that’s a long way from the 70, even 80, per cent share the right-of-centre party has enjoyed over the decades.  

The UCP will do what it can throughout the province to tie Nenshi to Justin Trudeau, which isn’t a bad strategy given how unpopular the prime minister is these days, but there’s no denying the former mayor will have some level of appeal to moderate Conservatives. The extent of that appeal will go a long way to determine the outcome of the next election. 

It will be fascinating to see how both sides portray the new NDP leader in the months and years ahead as the fight for the middle ground intensifies. Can middle-right voters get comfortable with the idea of Nenshi or will the NDP banner prove too hard a sell to right-leaning Albertans? 

It’s hard to fathom a swing so large that a staunch right-of-centre riding like Highwood could possibly turn orange, but when it comes to politics, it’s prudent to never say never. I suspect the Liberal candidate in Toronto-St. Paul's felt confident prior to last week’s federal byelection given the party had held the seat for more than 30 years, but after voters had their say, that’s no longer the case. 

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